Former Congressman Frank Wolf pondered “What Is Caesar’s, What Is God’s?” with attendees at the 2015 Petrie-Flom Center Annual Conference “Law, Religion and Health in America,” held May 7 at Harvard Law School.
Wolf, a tireless defender of the religiously marginalized around the world, opened by quoting James Madison, who “once opined, ‘Conscience is the most sacred of all property.’” To which Wolf added, “And as it relates to our discussion today, I maintain that conscience is most assuredly God’s.”
Wolf’s address weaved together his own story of standing for conscience on the House floor, current rulings related to religious liberty and the reality that the definition of tolerance and the protection of conscience are shifting dramatically in the United States. He concluded that “the space for dissent is daily shrinking” as “our national narrative” which once upheld “the preeminence of religious freedom as the cornerstone of all other human rights” is actively undermined.
The question ultimately comes down to whether or not the state — or God — is Lord of the conscience. People of faith will answer that God alone is Lord of the conscience. Wolf noted that as the increasingly powerful and politically persuasive progressive secular lobby demands that the conscience be “allegiant to the state,” people of faith are paying the price.
That is a perversion and yet it persists. “Quite simply, our conscience is not ultimately allegiant to the state, but to something, and for many people, Someone, higher. And this truth is important to protect, because if our conscience belongs to the state, the state can choose to violate it or compromise it at will,” Wolf argued.
Where does that leave us and where are we headed?
If the current trends continue, Wolf expects that some who refuse to sacrifice their conscience on the altar of tolerance will find themselves on the wrong side of civil authority. But that leaves them in good company, Wolf notes. Company like Joseph, Daniel, John the Baptist, Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King Jr.
As he told me once in his Capitol Hill office before he retired from Congress, “some of ya’ll are going to have to go to jail” before the nation wakes up to the reality that religious liberty and freedom of conscience are under assault in America. But Wolf fears that many will simply abandon the public square and allow culture’s continued course of devolution. He is seeking to raise the alarm and encourage the convicted to take a stand.
Wolf said, “Rather than retreat from the public square, I am hopeful that Christians and other people of faith will boldly stay, regardless of the cost. I am reminded of the rich Christian tradition of civil disobedience in the face of unjust laws. The Reverend Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail, is an exemplary defense of this approach. It was intended to convict his fellow religious leaders for being more ‘cautious than courageous’ in the face of segregation.”
“You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws… one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all. A just law is a man-made code that squares with moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”
“We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that, if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
King’s namesake, Martin Luther, took a similar stand for conscience in 1521.
Luther had said things that the civil authorities of his day didn’t like. In fact, both the church (Catholic) and the Emperor (Roman) wanted him to recant. But that was contrary to Luther’s conscience, informed by the Scriptures. The showdown was set to take place at the Imperial Diet of Worms where Luther would be afforded a hearing before being excommunicated. Luther appeared twice before the Emperor where he “took his teachings” but on Luther could not see any proofs offered by the court that would lead him to recant. That is to say, his conscience continued to convict him. Luther’s statement to the authorities is a fair summation of Wolf’s position. It is safe to say that with both of them, here I stand:
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” – Luther